Atlanta and Toronto are putting MLS' complacent billionaires to shame

The league's new elite have thrown down the gauntlet to the old guard, and there's no going back.

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There are no more excuses, and there should be no turning back.

This season has set a new standard and a new expectation for teams in Major League Soccer. Especially for teams run by owners with deep pockets.

At the top of the standings, Toronto FC is set to break all sorts of records. The team is on a path to have the most points in league history, the biggest goal differential and to be the fastest ever to claim a Supporters’ Shield. It has done so behind a Designated Player model that needed significant investment, then supplemented that with a system that puts tons of resources in scouting, analytics and academies.

Creeping up the Eastern Conference ranks is Atlanta United, which has entered MLS intent on shaking up the way this league works. It, too, is based on a DP model, but one that revolves around younger players who can not only help you win now but might also leave assets for future sale. It also has put in significant investment in other ventures, including the academy and scouting infrastructure, as well as a training facility that ranks among the best anywhere.

Many voices have said MLS has to increase investment in order to be more competitive globally. Count this column among them. Both Atlanta and Toronto are proving you can deliver a top-level team within the constraints of this league.

Atlanta spent money on transfer fees that would freeze out teams all across Europe. Toronto proved that you can pay for quality players in their primes and convince them MLS is a worthy home. Both have found worthwhile talent within MLS, and both hope to develop their own young stars.

Now it’s time for the rest of MLS to step up.

It is no longer viable to point to MLS’ salary budget guidelines, Targeted and General Allocation Money rules or DP spots as an excuse for why this league isn’t growing fast enough. Yes, if you remove those reins, there would be teams that spend plenty of money and add more talent. But within this salary structure, teams like Toronto and Atlanta are proving you can still spend at levels that would be deemed acceptable in many leagues around the world.

Whether you point to a $70 million training facility or $15 million in transfer fees in its first year, Atlanta United has quickly shown what that investment can do on the field. The first-year team is MLS’ most exciting to watch, with two of the top players in the league running its front line. No surprise, those two players were the ones on whom Atlanta spent the most money: Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron.

Other teams willing to spend have given this league more value, too. Whether it’s players like Sebastian Giovinco or Nicolas Lodeiro or David Villa, there are a handful of teams willing to move this league forward. Those teams are winning and putting fans in the stands, which is obvious not just with Atlanta’s 70,000-plus crowd but also in the home environments in Seattle and Portland.

But a handful of teams is not enough, and the league appears happy to watch fan bases get stuck with middling teams without pressuring owners to step up. Not every team has the capability to match Atlanta and Toronto’s level of investment, but plenty do, including two of the oldest teams in the league.

We talk often about the deep pockets in Atlanta. United owner Arthur Blank is worth $3.8 billion, according to Forbes. Colorado Rapids owner Stan Kroenke is worth $7.5 billion. New England Revolution owner Robert Kraft is worth $5.2 billion. They are just three of several billionaire owners in this league, of whom only a select handful are spending at comparable levels to Atlanta’s.

There is absolutely no excuse for why Atlanta can spend at such high levels and New England and Colorado are considered small-market teams with low budgets. If there is an argument promotion-relegation supporters want to put up in lights, it’s this one. The ownership groups clearly feel no pressure to increase their spending, whether for competitive reasons on the field or to simply keep up with the expansion teams that are trying to help MLS grow.

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t enough pressure from the league to push these owners to spend at satisfactory levels. While Kraft and Kroenke invested millions to keep MLS alive over its first two decades, that investment is now paying off.

MLS is viable. The value of these owners’ franchises have skyrocketed from the first decade-plus of the league’s existence. The gamble that soccer could make it in this country has paid off, and the checks from Soccer United Marketing and expansion fees will keep coming.

It’s now time to start spending to show it.

If the league is going to move forward, it needs to put the best possible product on the field. Atlanta United is showing what that product can look like. So is Toronto FC and, on the next tier, Seattle, New York City FC and Portland. The LA Galaxy has historically been in this group, and LAFC is presumed to be another example of ownership groups ready to spend. 

There’s no reason more teams can’t deliver the same product; or, at least, match the levels on investment.

Facebook Live Question of the Week

Every Thursday we do a live Q&A on FourFourTwo’s Facebook page. I select one question from that Facebook Live session to expand upon in my Monday column. Come join us this Thursday!

Rob Sewell - How do you effectively scout a country of over 4 million youth players?

This is a question that requires far more space than this column can provide, let alone this space within the column. Nonetheless, I’m going to offer at least one thought that puts a tiny pinprick in the mosaic of American soccer’s growth and how to scout a country so vast.

It’s a simple idea: Coaching education is a massive, massive part of the scouting process. The more good coaches involved in the U.S., the better chance the country has to identify players. If you have top coaches at the U-8, U-9 and U-10 levels, those players will be picked out and moved into more competitive environments. That will continue in the key age groups of U-12 and U-13 and on and on.

When the U.S. invests in coaches and coaching education, it’s investing not only in developing players but also in the eyeballs needed to identify those players who are ready for higher levels of development.

So … continued investment in coaching education is one step this country can make in better scouting and identifying talent within the youth structures. But that only begins to cover the problem.

The Final Third

Martinez tearing it up

One has to wonder what Atlanta United’s season would look like if Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez had been healthy for the whole year. Martinez is now just three goals behind David Villa in the Golden Boot race despite playing 1,110 fewer minutes this season.

It’s a remarkable rate – 1.39 goals per 90 minutes – and Martinez may very well end up catching Villa. If he does and Atlanta makes a real run at a top-two seed in the East, Martinez will have to be considered top-five in the MLS MVP voting race. He’ll also have helped Atlanta become one of the only legitimate threats to beat Toronto in the postseason.

Atlanta has been a lot of fun to watch whenever Martinez is on the field.

Credit Orlando

Staying on that game in the Southeast, credit to Orlando City, which played a respectable game against United and hung in there to get a fantastic road point in a tough environment.

Atlanta was playing a patchwork back line that had two defensive midfielders in the back four, but Orlando punched and punched and went back to Florida with a good point. The team also got some encouragement that it’s getting closer to finding its style of play and the right lineup for the future.

Dom Dwyer’s two goals put him back in the discussion for a U.S. men’s national team call-up for the upcoming qualifiers. Playing in Orlando may also give him an edge.

Piatti and Montreal

One of the most intriguing storylines to keep an eye on through the end of the season is that of Ignacio Piatti and the Montreal Impact.

Montreal crushed its playoff chances this weekend with a home loss to Minnesota United, and Piatti still has yet to re-up his contract with the Canadian side. Piatti has one year left on his deal, but he voiced his desire to sign an extension and lock up his future for longer. If he’s unable to come to terms with the Impact, it could become a tense situation.

Impact owner Joey Saputo penned a letter to fans to voice his dissatisfaction as well as his understanding of fans’ frustration with the season. Piatti has been one of the bright spots for the Impact this season – no surprise there – but we’ll see if Saputo’s take prevents him from locking up Piatti for more than one final season.

Reads of the Week

A beautiful story of friendship out of Australia. (Thanks to FFT USA’s own Katherine Rupp for this recommendation.)

John Woodrow Cox at The Washington Post gives us another must-read feature, this on one of the two dozen children shot every day in the U.S.

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